Month: February 2018

Cactus League opens: what I’m looking for

2018 spring training.

Today the M’s open their spring training games against their Peoria rivals, the San Diego Padres.  The M’s will be on the radio at noon.  Sadly, I’ll be teaching my sophomores about the New Deal.

I always look forward to the Cactus League games because, dang it, it’s baseball.  But this year I have a certain amount of trepidation, because actually playing the game always carries some risks, namely injury.  Even before today’s opener, number four starter Erasmo is out with a lat strain, and his availability for the March 29 season opener is in question.  Newly acquired first baseman is out after undergoing surgery to move a floating bone spur in his hand.  His status for the regular season is likewise ?

For Ramirez, it is has driven my much closer to the–Jerry should do something for the rotation school of thought.  Did you know the average mlb team used 11.2 starters during the regular season in 2017? The mean number, the most common number of starters used in the season was 11, used by eight teams. 23 teams used starters in double figures.  Of those that did not are Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Chicago Cubs, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Colorado, and the San Francisco-so a mix of good and bad teams.

That said, the M’s rotation and currently conceived includes James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake, Ramirez, Marco Gonzalez, Ariel Miranda, and Andrew Moore.  That’s seven guys, with one already wounded. Getting past that you’re looking at pitchers who either aren’t ready or have failed spectacularly-Christian Bergman, Max Povse, Rob Whalen, Chase DeJong. That’s eleven guys.  If you go past that you get crickets. It would be foolish not to add to this underwhelming collection of arms.

That said there are some important things to watch for:

Numero uno on my list is the play of Mike Ford and Dan Vogelbach.  With Healy out for nearly all of the Peoria warm-ups, it’s an opportunity for Ford, a Rule Five draft pick to show what he has.  Ford is the opposite of Healy.  He’s a first baseman without a lot of pop, but is an on-base machine.  I tend to like guys who can keep an inning alive without a ton of strikeouts, but I’m clearly in a minority.  I’m pulling for Vogelbach to have a great spring and show us the Mike Montgomery trade was not a clossal freakin’ mistake. But I’m not holding my breath.  In fairness however, the big guy hasn’t had much of a shot in his limited trip to the big leagues, and I’m hoping he can make a definitive case for remaining on the 40 man roster.

Though he won’t pitch today, I’m excited to see what Marco Gonzalez brings to the table without limitations to his pitches.  Will he be better throwing his cutter?  He better be, because he is the odds-on favorite for the fifth starter spot

What do the speedy Dee Gordon and Jean Segura give the Mariners at the top of the order. Do they get on enough to make pitchers crazy, and have the speed to score on mistakes?

Can the Mariners cut down on TOOTBLANS, and end their base-running woes.  What will Scott Servais do to them if they haven’t?

Those are some things that I’m looking for.

Note: At press time, game over M’s defeat their stadium rivals 3-2.  Gordon and Segura did their job. Kyle Seager doubled in Segura. Vogelbach doubled. The pitching crew of Miranda, Moore, James Pazos, Christian Bergman, Shawn Armstrong, and Dan Altavilla held on for the win. Four baserunning mistakes-yikes and double yikes. But at least it’s baseball and March 29th is that much closer.

 

 

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Shipwreck: A Dipoto deal that didn’t work

The free agent market is heating up slightly.  News that Yu Darvish signed with the Cubs is good for him and good for the game. Lots of lesser players are signing as well, but the rest of the big names-Jake Arrieta, J.D. Martinez, Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb and others are still unemployed.

An interesting name popped up yesterday on MLB Trade Rumors. Shae Simmons was signing a deal with the Cubs.  You may remember Simmons as a reliever traded to Seattle from Atlanta on January 11, 2017.  The Mariners granted Simmons free agency in December. He’s partnered in Mariner trade history with Drew Smyly who also was acquired by trade from Tampa Bay on January 11, 2017, and is also now a Cub.  So two players acquired by the Mariners same day are now wearing Cubbie blue, and are linked together in a pair of deals that go together.

They were costly deals that never worked out and I would argue they are among the worst deals in Mariner history.  Not quite Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb bad, or Adam Jones, George Sherrill, Kam Mickolio, Chris Tillman and Tony Butler for Erik Bedard horrendous, but it will be remembered with the worst of them.

Let’s recall the details of this swap. The M’s began by trading minor league pitchers Thomas Burrows and Luiz Gohara to the Braves for reliever Shae Simmons and minor league outfielder Mallex Smith. The same day Dipoto traded 17 year old infielder Carlos Vargas, minor league starter Ryan Yarbrough and Smith to Tampa Bay for Smyly.

Here’s what the M’s got in this deal.  Smyly was signed to a two year deal with the Rays, and would have been part of the Mariners through the 2018 season.  He went off to the WBC during spring training in 2017, and had a great outing.  Came back to camp with a “soggy arm” and never made it back out on the mound for the Mariners. He went through TJ surgery and was granted free agency on December 1st along with Simmons. Smyly’s injury was the first of a plague of pitching injuries that effectively de-railed the Mariners season. He’ll also be the poster boy for manager concerns about allowing their best pitchers to throw in a high stress situation before they are physically ready in the 2021 World Baseball Classic.

Simmons was the other player the Mariners held on to after the dust cleared on January 11th.  He is considered a right-handed reliever with a power arm the M’s coveted.  Long on potential but short on major-league experience. Simmons also never made it out of spring training, developing significant arm/shoulder problems.  He eventually pitched in nine September games for the M’s, allowing virtually nothing through his first six appearances and getting absolutely shelled in his last game. Scheduled to make $700K in 2018, the M’s mysteriously non-tendered him.

So the M’s completed virtually a three team deal to acquire Smyly and Simmons, and between the two of them got 7.2 innings out of Simmons. What did the Mariners give up?

Tampa Bay received Mallex Smith and Ryan Yarbrough.  Smith is a 24 year-old speed and defense outfielder.  He managed a .270/.328/.355 slash in 81 games with 16 stolen bases in Tampa.  He was also a superior defender with 12 Defensive Runs Saved in his half season of work.   His performance is very mindful of Jarrod Dyson.  Smith is expected to step in for All-Star Center Fielder Kevin Kiermaier if the Rays trade him.

Yarbrough is a 26 year old lefty starter who is ranked 27th in Tampa’s highly regarded farm system.  Last year he made 26 starts with a 3.43 ERA, 9.1 K/9, 2.2 BB/9 and  1.163 WHIP.  Yarbrough is envisioned as a back of the rotation starter.  He’d probably look good in Mariner blue.

Atlanta’s farm system is ranked #1 by Baseball America.  Luiz Gohara is ranked as their number six prospect. The hard throwing lefty pitched 29.1 innings for the Braves in 2017 or about four times as many innings as Smyly and Simmons combined. Writer David O’Brien of the Atlanta Constitution Journal expects him to break into the Braves rotation in 2018.

Thomas Burroughs didn’t quite make the Baseball America Top 20 Atlanta prospects, more of an honorable mention.  But he did make the MLB.com top 30 for Atlanta.  For a team that is virtually without significant infield prospects trading Burroughs without a significant return hurts.

This is a trade that just didn’t work. Smyly and Simmons are gone, and so are the armload of prospects traded for them.  Imagine if the M’s hadn’t traded Mallex Smith. They might not have made the deal for Jarrod Dyson, and still had Nate Karns. They wouldn’t have needed Dee Gordon and could have held on to his $9 million salary.  They also would have kept Nick Neidert, their best pitching prospect heading into 2018.  Or they could have forgotten the whole deal and held on to Gohara and Yarbrough, both of whom might be challenging for a starting role today.

Jerry’s made lots of deals.  There have been some really good ones. I like the trade for Segura and Haninger.  I like the Gordon trade.  But there are some that haven’t worked out at all, including the Chris Taylor trade; Mike Montgomery to the Cubs for Paul Blackburn and Daniel Vogelbach,  and this one.

I was listening to the Baseball America podcast with Carlos Collazo and Kyle Glaser analyzing the Mariners farm system.  You may recall it is ranked the worst in the majors. It is a fairly sympathetic look at what Jerry Dipoto has done to improve the big league club.  But among the comments is a recognition that Dipoto has also traded 13 pitching prospects over the past two years, which has seriously depleted the farm.  It’s a great listen–30 minutes during your morning commute. Glaser was highly complimentary of the entire organization including farm executives and scouting.

But it’s the drive to get into the playoffs that has forced trades that weaken the farm system and left no margin for error, like the injury to Smyly.

This trade continued the trend and essentially got nothing back. At least in the bad Slocumb and Bedard trades we got some bad innings out of the deal. We didn’t even get that in this trade.  I like Dipoto’s boldness, but the man has made some costly mistakes, and this is one of them.

 

So, what are their chances? No, really.

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“Now is the winter of our discontent,” observed Richard III from Shakespeare’s play of the same name.  Thankfully, with the arrival of spring training, many fans will find a way to end their ire at the might-have-beens or should-have-signed that has dotted social media, the blogs and even the local papers. Lets get down to brass tacks and see what happens as players prepare for the season that opens a scant seven weeks from now.

We’ve heard GM Jerry Dipoto’s defense for not signing another arm for the rotation.  It’s hard to imagine the Mariners would not be better without an Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn.  But unless their market crashes, one has to take Dipoto at his word.  There won’t be another addition to the rotation. The pitchers will be James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake, Erasmo Ramirez, and likely Marco Gonzalez.

The only contest for jobs will likely be the utility infield position, with chief rivals being Taylor Motter and Andrew Romine.  There is going to be the barest of competitions for back-up catcher between Mike Marjama and David Freitas. And there will be some competition for the last bullpen spot-which will be owned by Gonzalez if he is out-pitched for the rotation by Ariel Miranda or Andrew Moore.

The lineup welcomes Dee Gordon, likely to the lead-off spot with Segura hitting behind him, leading to the core of Cano, Cruz and Seager.  Ryon Healy will take a turn at first base unless he is completely upstaged in the spring by Rule 5 draftee Mike Ford.  Gordon upgrades the lineup with on-base skill and speed, otherwise it is the same.   It has the potential of being more fun to watch, with some additional speed on the bases from Gordon and Segura.  It could be a lot better if we’re just beginning to see the best of Mike Zunino, Mitch Haniger and Ben Gamel.  Healy’s arsenal of dingers and strikeouts could get old in a hurry. Assuming health, this team should score more than the 750 runs than the 2017 team did.

But realistically, how good is this team?  I’ve seen the projections, you’ve seen the projections, all god’s children have looked at Steamer, ZIP’s, Pecota, FAN and whatever else is out there.  The projections are all an interesting mathematical exercise, and at the end of the day they may be correct. But in the end all the projection services tend to be conservative in the assumptions based on previous years. Though injuries play a role in the projections, injuries and health, improvement or regression aren’t foreseeable so it’s hard to know how much stock to put in them. That’s why they play the games.

I believe the M’s have three potential bands of success or failure.

The first band is the 2018 Mariners of broken bodies.  If there is significant injury to the projected rotation–whether it is Paxton and Felix, or Leake and Ramirez, the Mariners will finish below .500.  If they repeat last year’s rotation devastation, it is hard to see how they win 75 games.  If there are significant injuries to the line-up as well, or if Cano and Cruz meet the off-stated assumption that old guys at some point fall off a cliff,  it will be less than 75 games. It could be less than 70. This band has a low floor

The second band is in accord with most of the projections, about a .500 ballclub.  It’s easy to envision the Mariners here if injuries to the rotation are moderate. Some missed starts and a possible trip to the DL by starters, but not for an extended period of time. No catastrophic injuries to the line-up, though some players don’t play up to expectations. This would be a foreseeable but unsatisfying outcome.

The third band is more encouraging,  but requires good health, continued improvement by young players, and some luck. If the rotation is healthy, Paxton takes the next step, and Felix is at least some level of nobility, the wolfpack pitches effectively in the role Dipoto envisions, it will be a step forward.  If Cano and Seager approach their 2016 production, and/or the younger players continue to improve it will lead to a more formidable offense.  This third band, my prediction, begins at 84 wins.  I’ve always been an optimist. However, breakout seasons by Paxton or the other pitchers, a shut-down bullpen, and elevated performances in the lineup could raise it all to 88 wins.  I can’t imagine the ceiling much higher with lots of games against an other-worldly Astros team and the improved Angels.

There is a road to the playoffs.  It’s foreseeable, at the very top of this team’s ceiling.  It’s also unlikely. If the Mariners play well and the Angels and Twins stumble, it could happen.  I think the M’s will be decent, just not good enough. And if they aren’t good enough to make the playoffs, and with Kyle Lewis, Evan White and Sam Carlson still years away from the majors, what is the path forward?

 

Pitchers and catchers report. Time for questions to be answered.

02242016-spring01

If today isn’t the official beginning of spring training, at least it feels a little closer.  Players will arrive in Peoria, some with their families.  They will don actual cleats and uniforms.  Baseball will happen between the lines in a real Mariners baseball facility.  Maybe not today, but assuredly tomorrow.

And, trust me, the sun will rise a little earlier, shine a little brighter and stay out a little longer. Because, well, baseball.

I can remember no more maudlin Mariners off-season than the one passed. In fact I can’t remember an off-season in which so little seemed to happen, and it wasn’t just the Mariners.

We’ve all (i.e., I’ve) become used to frenetic Jerry Dipoto making seemingly daily deals to improve the team, and honestly there simply hasn’t been much dealing. Not even many minor league signings, releases or shuffling.  Nope, Dee Gordon dealt for, Juan Nicasio signed before Christmas.  All we could do was watch as other teams made deals or signed the big name free agents out on the market.  Except they didn’t. Sigh.

And, of course, that lack of action gave all of us plenty to complain about. Everyone has voiced their concern the Mariners rotation and a need for one more decent body.  Larry Stone of the Seattle Times and Jay Jaffe of SI.com both wrote columns in the last week identifying the weakening market for second tier pitchers like Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb, and how the lengthy, expensive commitment Dipoto publicly identified as destructive to the Mariners’ future may not be needed to sign them. And who is to say they’re wrong?

The M’s head into spring training as perhaps the fringiest of fringe playoff teams. They are a bundle of maybes and what ifs.   Here are just a few of the questions I have:

  1. Can the rotation hold together with glue, baling wire and duct tape for 162 games and deliver a modicum of the stability lacking in 2017?
  2. Will Dipoto’s “wolf pack strategy” work with this bullpen in support of this rotation?
  3. Can Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager approach the numbers they had in 2016, or is what we saw last year who they really are?
  4. Does Nelson Cruz have one last great campaign?
  5. Have we seen the best of Mike Zunino and Mitch Haniger, or is the best yet to come?
  6. Can Dee Gordon make us forget Jarrod Dyson’s glove?
  7. Will Ryon Healy be the best Mariner first baseman since Russell Branyan?

I don’t know that I have the answers, but we’re about to start finding out.  Go M’s.